Whether you are developing a mobile application, web app or software, before you embark on your entrepreneurial journey, ask yourself the following questions and answer them honestly. Is my idea any good?  Does it address a gap that currently exists in the market?  Am I confident that I will be able to attract enough paying customers that will provide a good, solid return on your investment?

If you find out early on that your idea is not original and the marketplace has well-established competitors, then you can probably guarantee that you will not get a reasonable return on your investment — no harm done. It’s much better to cut your losses at an early stage than dig a hole that you can’t get out of in the future.  If you firmly believe that your idea has definite potential, explore the opportunity right down to the nuts and bolts.  Ask yourself, where and how can you improve and make it stand out from the competition.  If there are competitors, that’s not always a bad thing – quite the opposite, it demonstrates that there is an existing market for ideas like yours.  Now all you have to do is refine, improve, develop a scalable solution and blow your competition out of the water.  If you don’t take a step back before you take a step forward, you could quickly land yourself in serious financial and legal trouble.  Take the time to conduct due diligence now to avoid hardship in the future.  Whether in Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky or Silicon Valley, for every success story from an incubator program, there’s at least ten who have thrown money into an idea and lost every penny.  If you don’t believe me, visit your local business incubator, ask how many Cincinnati startups pass through every year and ask for their contact details.  Reach out to them and learn from their mistakes as well as achievements.  Be open to continuous learning and change, and you will increase the likelihood of becoming the one in ten success stories.

A classic oversight is to assume that your idea must be original on the basis that you’ve never heard of or seen anything like it.  The onus is on you to identify prior art, a legal term that means anything already known and recorded that is so similar to your idea as to allow someone to say ‘that has already been developed”. Prior art embraces all media and every period of history.  It includes every unworkable and useless idea that has ever been documented anywhere in the world. It’s highly possible that your software, web app or mobile application could, for example, be considered non-original as it was described in a 1980’s James Bond movie by Q, the head of Q Branch, the fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service MI6.

It’s important to be very thorough in your research, because the more prior art that’s out there, the less likely you will be able to claim originality.

Before you make a financial commitment to invest in your idea, check to see whether your idea can be considered original.  You can start by conducting the following searches:

Product search

Find out what’s already on the market that is firstly similar to your idea and secondly deals with the same problem. You may ask, why should I be looking for products that are different to mine? Most software applications provide a solution to a problem.  There’s nearly always a variety of methods to resolving an issue so, if you want to be successful, it’s imperative that you carry out professional due diligence to the best of your ability regardless of whether you’re on a shoe-string budget or not.  Before making any judgment on the commercial viability of your idea, you need to identify all of the competition that you’re going to encounter. You’re going to need to do this for your market research anyway so you might as well start now.

Google is a great place to start your search.  You can also use more specific searches such as Google Scholar which allows you to search for scientific papers and articles and of course, take a look at the app stores.  A quick search on Google Play or the Apple App Store may reveal some competitors or similar products. When you initially start your research, it may seem overwhelming.  My advice is to brainstorm keywords and phrases that may relate to your idea and start there.  Keep a spreadsheet of key phrases you’ve searched for and record any relevant findings.  Try variations of your keyword also and extend your search across multiple search utilities.  When you can no longer identify any new results, try using specialist industry terminology or put your keywords through a thesaurus and search alternatives.

Patent search

It’s equally important to conduct a patent search to find issued patents for every aspect of your software application. Patent protection will be limited if your search reveals granted patents that address areas you believed were original. Before commencing your patent search there are two critical things you need to consider:

  • Even though the vast majority of patents never become products, it’s the existence of the idea that counts. The fact that they’re on record makes them valid prior art.
  • Prior art knows no boundaries of place or time. Regardless of the issue date or location of the patent, an idea similar to yours can be considered potential prior art. Carry out a patent search free of charge or hire a patent attorney to conduct a professional analysis.

Espacenet is the most convenient way to search and view worldwide patents giving you free access to over 100 million patent documents.  A quick search of one of your keywords or phrases should bring up a list of patent numbers and titles. Repeat the search for every keyword and phrase.  Record your findings in your spreadsheet.

Patenting can be costly, and you have to disclose exactly why something is patentable.  Once published, it’s in the public domain.  While you may have protection in countries that respect patent laws, if you’re software application is any good, it will be copied in no time by nations who have, how can I put it mildly, absolutely zero respect for patents.  In software, it’s not uncommon for companies to avoid patenting and reserve the information from the public domain — commonly known as “Know How” or “Secret Know How.”

If you identify a patent that may be of value, reach out to the patent agent and see what costs would be involved in licensing the patent?  It may very well transpire that you could negotiate access for a reasonable annual license or royalty.

Do your homework on your idea, explore it further and reach out to other Cincinnati Startups. I don’t have all the answers, but I have been down this path with multiple startups with varying degrees of success.  If you’re in Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky, and if you’d like some friendly, unbiased advice, feel free to get in contact and either I or one of my colleagues at Zoozler LLC would be happy to help out.

Article contributed by Donald (Donie) Cronin, Project Manager, Zoozler LLC. Donie is no stranger to the world of startups. The most recent company he started, HerdInsights, developed a cloud based health monitoring system for dairy cows which monitors the health and reproductive in real-time and sends actionable alerts to farm management. Donie was involved in every facet of the business from initial field trials being up to his waist in cow muck to investor negotiations and the assembly of a world-class board. Stay tuned to learn all about Donies journey and that of Zoozlers vastly experienced team over the course of the next number of weeks.

Photo by Marius Ciocirlan